Going home to Venezuela after years of exile: ‘It’s a different country’

As immigration restrictions tighten up across Latin America and Venezuelans face rising xenophobia in other countries, thousands of citizens are returning to a more unequal and expensive nation

Samuel Ramos
Samuel Ramos, in his Caracas home; May 12, 2023.Gaby Oraa
Florantonia Singer

Fed up with the politics and food lines, Helena Riera left Venezuela in 2015. She still had running water in her home back then, but the last straw was President Nicolás Maduro’s “Dakazo.” When Maduro ordered Daka and other consumer electronic stores to sell products at much lower prices right before municipal elections, Riera was horrified at how people stampeded stores to fight over toasters and hair dryers. After almost eight years in Chile, she recently returned to her hometown of Carora (western Venezuela) and has already adapted to the daily routine of buying water from a tanker truck. Life in Venezuela hasn’t improved at all, but things are different. “If things go badly, I’ll leave again. But I don’t expect that. I know what I came back to and I don’t have any big financial goals. I came back for emotional and personal reasons,” she said.

Riera is one of approximately 2,000 foreigners who have emigrated from Santiago de Chile this year, according to the Chilean government. Most are Venezuelans who headed to the United States, but some are making their way back to their native country. Anitza Freites from Andrés Bello Catholic University (Venezuela) says this return from exile began as a trickle and became more noticeable in the last 12 months. Freites estimates that 3%-6% of the nearly seven million people who have left Venezuela in search of better lives may now be returning home. According to the Venezuelan government, by the end of 2022 only 31,000 citizens returned under its pandemic-era Plan Vuelta a la Patria [Return to the Homeland Plan], a program that offered free flights home to bolster its narrative about the country’s recovery.

In Chile, Riera had residency and work papers, and was allowed to vote. When she first arrived, the social communicator had to take lower-level jobs as a receptionist, coffee barista and art teacher. When her romantic relationship there ended, she found no reason to stay in Chile. For other reasons, Riera’s brother and his wife also left Chile this year and returned to Venezuela. “My brother was downsized from his job before the pandemic. He started driving for Uber, but they couldn’t keep up with the mortgage payments on their apartment.”

When she first arrived in Chile, Riera said the country was welcoming. “They used to say Venezuelans are okay, but not Peruvians. Now they say, ‘Go home, Venezuelan assholes.’ I watched Chile become more xenophobic.” She says Venezuela has changed in a bittersweet way that she now likes. “Nobody is fighting the government anymore, which gives me some peace of mind. We are too screwed up — it’s a disaster — but nobody expects anything [from the government] anymore and everyone is coping in their own way. Like in my house, where we haven’t had running water for four years. Now we just call the tanker truck. Every family copes in their own way… It feels like a country with no government, so everyone does the best they can.”

Riera plans to set up an art school for children in her town. “I can do it here because I have family and a support network. It helps not to be so isolated,” she said. “It gives me a lot of happiness to make this dream a reality, especially in these conditions.”

Bringing in dollars

In 2016, Angel Silva took a six-day bus trip to Lima (Peru), where he heard he could make plenty of money. Three months later, he brought his wife and two children to Lima. Silva worked as a mechanic and drove heavy freight trucks. He soon experienced the local xenophobia against Venezuelans. He was accused of stealing at one job. Once, he intervened on behalf of a woman on the bus when the driver refused to give the woman her change. Silva ended up in a fight, got stabbed and detained by the police. But in Lima, his children could go to school and learned English at an early age. Silva had enough savings after six years for the family to fly home last December to attend his father-in-law’s funeral, and they ended up staying.

Silva says his experience wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good either. “Before I went to Peru, everyone said I was going to make a lot of money and I got fixated on that. Now when my [Venezuelan] friends there ask me how Venezuela is doing, I tell them it’s a little different. But as long as we have this government, not much will change. I tell them to give it a try if they want to come back, but don’t give up their [work and residency] papers there.”

Silva says the biggest change is that Venezuela has become dollarized. When he left, having dollars without government authorization was a crime. “I’m enthusiastic about coming back. I haven’t even thought about going back to Peru. But I do have to work a lot here. I leave home at three or four in the morning to bring in the dollars every day,” said Silva during a break from driving a taxi. He plans to set up a street food stand to earn a little more income.

Kelinger Colmenares also says she had a negative experience after migrating to Yachuachí (southern Ecuador). Three years ago, the 20-year-old mother of an infant moved there after her Ecuadorian partner got established there. But she couldn’t get papers, take the cosmetics course she wanted, earn her own income, or enroll her daughter in school. She says living in the violent city taken over by organized crime and drug trafficking was terrifying. “Everyone asks me why I’m going back, but staying in a country where I can’t do anything until my partner gets paid just wears me out emotionally and mentally,” she wrote in a WhatsApp message from the bus to Venezuela. When she arrived in Caracas, her whole family was there to welcome her with flowers, hugs and sweets. She plans to live with her sister until she saves enough money to finish building the house in western Caracas they left incomplete. “They tell me everything is the same here. It’s very hard to see your family going through difficult times and not be with there with them. I think you can make money anywhere in the world.”

Kelinger Colmenares
Kelinger Colmenares (left) is reunited with her family in Caracas after spending three years in Ecuador. Cortesía

New destinations

Anitza Freites will soon publish the results of a qualitative study on the emerging trend of Venezuelan returnees. “The in-depth interviews we conducted at the border show that many young people left without a thought-out migration plan just to try their luck elsewhere. This is somewhat abnormal since services in Venezuela are free,” she said. The influx of returnees partly responds to tighter immigration controls in several Latin American countries that initially opened their doors to Venezuelans, and also to faint hopes that the country’s economy could recover after the government lifted some controls, along with the spontaneous dollarization trend caused by inflation and currency devaluation. “The situation has become very difficult recently for Venezuelans who are being deported from Chile and Peru, and those who are stuck on the U.S.-Mexico border,” said Freites. “They are vulnerable people in the middle of a political battle waged by xenophobes who use the immigration issue for popularity.” The study by Freites examines the reintegration challenges of a large-scale return to Venezuela from exile.

Sociologist Claudia Vargas, a migration researcher at Simon Bolivar University (Venezuela), says to measure the flow of returnees, one has to evaluate “their dedication to permanence… because there is also a circular flow of people who return to visit family, take care of some business, and then go back to the country they left. Or sometimes they move on to other countries. This can be seen in the numbers of Venezuelans traveling through the Darién Gap [Panama]. Many people leave when their host countries tighten immigration policies, but they still want to achieve the goals that drove them from Venezuela. Up to 2018, this region was a lifeline for the second wave of [emigrating] Venezuelans. But there hasn’t been an effective, legal or economic integration of migrants, which feeds a political discourse that can cause discrimination.” Vargas says there is a fresh wave of emigrating Venezuelans going to diverse destinations where their rights are violated. The primary destinations are the United States and Spain, where Venezuelans top the numbers of asylum requests.

A survey by Consultores 21 released in April 2023 revealed that 30% of the Venezuelans surveyed intend to leave the country; 48% have at least one family member abroad; and 33% of Venezuelan households receive regular remittances from abroad. Vargas believes moving on to other developed countries after failed attempts in Latin America may be a new trend, as shown by the two deportations of Venezuelans from Germany this year.

“It’s not any better, but it’s a different country,” said Samuel Ramos, who came back to Venezuela in early May from Buenos Aires without a return plane ticket. When he first went to Argentina in 2018, a U.S. dollar was worth 20 pesos, but inflation has pushed the dollar exchange rate to 500 pesos — nothing unfamiliar to a Venezuelan. Samuel worked as a laborer, food server and bicycle delivery driver until he settled into a job as an online English teacher. “I didn’t leave Argentina because things are bad there. I had been away for five years and wanted to come back and see how things are here. There are things I can do there but not here, and other things I can do here but not there.”

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